Caltech scientists have built an electron microscope that, like a video camera, can film events over short periods of time to provide a glimpse into various mechanisms happening at the nano scale.
Electrons are used to visualize the smallest of objects, on the atomic scale, because the wavelength of the radiation source used by a microscope must be shorter than the space between the atoms. This can be accomplished using electrons, and in particular–because the wavelength of an electron shrinks as its velocity increases–by electrons that have been accelerated to dizzying speeds.
But just having electrons isn’t sufficient to capture the behavior of atoms in both space and time; the electrons have to be carefully doled out, so that they arrive at the sample at specific time intervals. Zewail and his colleagues have achieved this by introducing the fourth dimension of time into high-resolution electron microscopy, in what has been termed ultrafast “single-electron” imaging, where every electron trajectory is precisely controlled in time and space.
The resulting image produced by each electron represents a femtosecond still at that moment in time. Like the frames in a film, the sequential images generated by many millions of such images can be assembled into a digital movie of motion at the atomic scale.
As reported in the Science paper, Zewail and colleagues applied their new 4D electron microscopy to observe the behavior of the atoms in superthin sheets of gold and graphite. Graphite, the material in pencils, consists of layers of carbon atoms locked into a sheet-like array. The atoms move in a unique and coherent way on the femtosecond timescale.
However, the researchers found that on a slightly longer, picosecond (one thousandth of a billionth of a second) scale, the graphite nanosheets produce sound waves. In the images, they directly visualized the elastic movements of the sheets and determined the force holding them together, which is described by a stress-strain property known as “Young’s modulus.” The 4D movies produced from the frames revealed the behavior in space and time.
In a second paper in the current issue of the journal Nano Letters, Zewail and his colleagues described their visualization of the changes in a nanometer-thick graphite membrane on a longer time scale, up to a thousandth of a second. The researchers first blasted the sample with a pulse of heat. The heated carbon atoms began to vibrate in a random, nonsynchronized fashion. Over time, however, the oscillations of the individual atoms became synchronized as different modes of the material locked in phase, emerging to become a heartbeat-like “drumming.” Digital video, slowed down more than a billion times, illustrates this nano-drumming mechanical phenomenon, which displays a well-defined resonance that is nearly 100 times higher than can be detected by the human eardrum.
The researchers are currently using the 4D microscope to image the components of cells, such as proteins and ribosomes, the cellular machinery that makes proteins. They have already produced images of a stained rat cell and, more recently, of a protein crystal and cell in vitreous water. “The goal is to enhance the structural resolution in the images of these biomaterials by taking single-pulse snapshots before they move or deteriorate, and to follow their dynamics in real time,” Zewail says.
Press release: Caltech 4D Microscope Revolutionizes the Way We Look at the Nano World …
Abstract in Science: 4D Imaging of Transient Structures and Morphologies in Ultrafast Electron Microscopy
Image: 4D imaging of transient structures and morphologies in ultrafast electron microscopy